It Pays to be Skeptical by KS Raghavan SignUp
It Pays to be Skeptical
Dr. KS Raghavan Bookmark and Share

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter who said it, no matter even if I have said it unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”.

The above quote is attributed to Gautama Buddha who lived about 2600 years back. He, in my considered opinion, is the first ever thinker to set foot on the earth.

More recently, Swami Vivekananda expressed similar sentiments through the following words.

“To believe blindly is to degenerate the human soul. Do not believe anything unquestioningly”.

Swami’s message is that humans have the capacity to think and should exploit the same.

Rene Descartes, the seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher says “If you are a real seeker of truth, it is necessary that at least once in lifetime you doubt, as far as possible, all things”.

Sir Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher of the last century, has almost the same message to convey “In all affairs it is a healthy habit now and then to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted”.

Questioning is not an end in itself. It is means to end, which can often be productive and also be the first step in the path of progress. Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist and author of the last century, says “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense”. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist of the last century echoes Sagan’s views by saying “There is nothing wrong in doubt and scepticism. It is through these that new discoveries are made”.

When one questions, it is implied that a satisfactory answer is sought. One seeks evidence. This is very well expressed by Isaac Asimov, the well-known science fiction writer. He says “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement and reasoning. I believe in anything if there is evidence. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, the more solid the evidence has got to be”. In making this statement Asimov had in mind many unfounded and pseudo-scientific theories which were prevailing. Carl Sagan says that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

To question freely there need to be proper mindset. In addition there should be no constraint. Constraints often originate from religion. We may recall here that it took more than a century for the Church to accept the fact that the solar system is heliocentric. Robert Ingersoll, the famous author and orator of the nineteenth century (nicknamed “The Great Agnostic”) was highly critical of the negative role played by the Church. In his words “Progress is born out of doubt and inquiry. The Church never doubts, never inquires. To doubt is heresy, to inquire is to admit ignorance. The Church does neither”.

In this context, sentiments also play a major role. Naguib Mehfouz, the Egyptian writer (1988 Nobel Prize winner for literature) says “It is a most dangerous affliction to have a sentimental heart and a skeptical mind”. Clarence Darrow, the American lawyer and a leading member of the Civil Liberties Union, has gone on record saying “I have always felt that doubt is the beginning of wisdom and the fear of God is the end of wisdom”. I see profound truth in both these statements.

I wish to end this with an Einstein quote. He says “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One should never lose a holy curiosity”.

It has been recognized that innovation starts with curiosity followed by appropriate questions. Young children need to be encouraged (at least not discouraged) to ask questions and develop inquisitive minds. Parents and school teachers have significant roles to play in this regard.

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Comment Dr. Raghavan, Thanks for a gracious response. I agree with what you have to say and I share your sentiments and beliefs. Matters of faith are beyond reproach. With good wishes.

P. Rao
03/29/2019 22:27 PM

Comment Thank you Rao. Critical thinking also dates back to days of Socrates. I view critical thinking as the step next to skeptical inquiry. All scientists and researchers are necessarily critical thinkers as they pursue to a certain goal. Inquisitive mindset is the essential seed for critical thinking.

I have noted your observation about my remarks concerning Buddha. It is my personal view and firm conviction (I have slightly edited the original text to this effect). It is not without reason. Buddha predates Confucius by about a century. He predates Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato etc by over two hundred years. They are the earliest known thinkers. By many accounts, he was a deep thinker even as a young boy. Here is an anecdote from the book "Old Path White Clouds" by Thich Nhat Hanh. When he was nine years old he witnessed harvest festival in which Brahmin priest recited scriptures for a long time. He wondered about the usefulness of those Mantras. He thought about it deeply and told his mother "Mother, reciting the scriptures does nothing to help worms and birds"

03/28/2019 03:28 AM

Comment Thank you Mr. Rao. Critical thinking, in my view, is a step further to skeptical inquiry. Critical thinking is logical sequence. All scientists and researchers are, to a certain degree, critical thinkers. The seed has got to come from an inquisitive mindset.

About Buddha, what I have written is my personal opinion and firm conviction. Gautama Buddha predates Confucius by about a century and Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato etc by more than two centuries. From the book "Old Path, White Clouds" by Thich Nhat Hanh, I quote two questions he put to his mother as a young boy during harvest festivities. ".. why must the holy men chant so long" and "..Why doesn't father recite those scriptures instead of having the Brahmans do it". These have prompted me to make the statement.

Incidentally, most of the people whose quotes are included in the article are my heroes. They have profoundly influenced me in my lifestyle.

03/27/2019 21:16 PM

Comment The above thoughts from different authorities are worth noting. These days it is popularly referred to as critical thinking on internet. Critical thinking, at times reveals new insights that are some times opposite of what we began with.

PS: The statement above, "Gautama Buddha, the first thinker to set foot on the earth" turned out to be a hyperbole upon some critical thinking!

With thanks for the article on thinking.

P. Rao
03/24/2019 09:53 AM

Comment Good one Taghu. Agree with all the points.

03/24/2019 05:42 AM

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